Originally published in Official Artur Davis
I’ve written previously about the challenges Barack Obama and other liberals have in building a communitarian case for their politics. I share William Galston’s perspective that the strains and dislocation in our society are at odds with the ideal of mutual obligation, and would add that a number of liberal-approved policies have contributed to that polarization. It’s worth pondering though, whether today’s conservatives do much better.
The short answer is that they don’t and often don’t try. At worst, most of the right fears that communitarian rhetoric is a cover for imposing an elite set of values over theirs, and for redistributionist tax and spend policies. To the extent there are conservative sympathizers (a Ross Douthat comes to mind), theirs is an enthusiasm for a localized brand of community, that relies on the vigor of private associations and faith based institutions. It’s a long way from the canvass Mario Cuomo was painting about a national “family”, or Obama’s contemporary efforts to draw from the unifying experience of the military or the mobilization of resources to build our national infrastructure.
On one hand, the conservative skepticism makes perfect sense. At a visceral level, the political right realizes that the cohesiveness liberals are invoking has pretty one-sided policy aims: realigning the tax burden, reaffirming the vitality of entitlements, and growing government’s reach into the economy, from capital markets to health-care to the energy sector. Conservatives also sense that liberals are not exactly agnostic in their viewpoints about the social values of a national “community”—it’s a pro-choice, pro gay marriage sensibility that openly distrusts any argument that incorporates, references, or elevates tradition or overt faith. Conservatives are quick to puncture the contradiction of embracing community while rolling eyeballs over some of its most conventional elements.
But as understandable as their resistance may be, it’s worth noting that the last conservative icon had more than a passing acquaintance with one of the most florid renditions of communitarian rhetoric. Ronald Reagan was a serial quoter of John Winthrop’s searing metaphor about America as a “shining city on a hill”, and often included the most utopian parts: the references to our fates “being bound one to another”, and the description of the American identity as one that aligned the weak and the strong alike. In fact, it’s an imagery so powerfully associated with the 40th president that one of his eulogists, Sandra Day O’Connor, attributed many of the lines to Reagan.
Is the language of shared responsibility helpful to a Republican who believes that individual freedom is being weakened and that defending it should be the sole enterprise of the conservative movement? Not likely. But there is another brand of conservatism that should grasp that society is linked by certain moral understandings, and that dangerous things happen when those arrangements come undone. This conservative reading ascribes the flight from corporate responsibility in the last decade to a slow unraveling of a social ethic—the notion that markets managed their power with restraint, and prudence, and that their accumulation of wealth was anchored to a morality that connected reward to work. Under this reasoning, the consolidation of risk into exotic financial instruments and a compensation structure that was un-tethered from merit turned that ethic on its head.
The liberal rendition of the economic near-collapse also captures some flavor of the aforementioned argument. The liberal version sails way beyond it though, to a denigration of wealth aggregating in any circumstance—moral, amoral, or otherwise. Think, as an example, Elizabeth Warren’s stump speech that almost all wealth and power is a giveaway in the form of corporate privileges or tax breaks, and that its time to pay the piper. It’s dubious, poorly descriptive economics, but it resonates with a country that prefers an implicit moral code that applies to powerful people too, over a rugged competition of the fittest.
Imagine a conservatism that was concerned with moral arrangements and reciprocity in a badly scattered society. That kind of conservatism might have the stature to distinguish profit from profiteering, and to defend the creativity of the private market as innovation worth preserving and not over-regulating. It might broaden the conservative case to address the deteriorating, abysmal state of public education, and would confront the teachers unions’ complacency as an affront to our shared values of accountability. It could only strengthen the brief against a bloated entitlement structure that pays Medicare recipients benefits equaling three times what they pay in; and that is financed in a starkly unprogressive manner.
As William Galston acknowledges, there is a legitimate tension in communitarian appeals that conservatives are right to avoid. If the idealized community has no vibrant role for local churches, or sectarian associations, it’s guilty of false advertising. It’s also a red flag when Chris Christie is assailed as a George Wallace for preferring a statewide vote on same-sex marriage to a legislative resolution: what kind of national community doesn’t recognize that local communities can organize under their own social institutions, and that states and local localities can lean left or right within the space of a broad federal constitutional framework? (that also means Mississippi can be more restrictive on access to abortions than New York, that Florida can walk away from affirmative action in college admissions when California might not want to).
But in a party that reveres Reagan for bringing it out of the wilderness, there’s something to learn from what he had to say about ties that bind us. It’s hard for conservatives to celebrate a country as exceptional, and then shrink from defining the common values that make it so.